Are Solar-Powered Greenhouses the Way Forward?

Greenhouses specially engineered to incorporate solar panels appear to grow vegetables like tomatoes and cucumbers just as well as their more typical counterparts — and with some added benefits.

Researchers from UC Santa Cruz demonstrated thatelectricity generation from solar power can be made more cost effective and resource efficient by combining solar energy generating panels with greenhouse technology to grow crops. The scientists tell of their success in a new study publishedin theAmerican Geophysical Union’s journal “Earth’s Future.”

“We have demonstrated that ‘smart greenhouses’ can capture solar energy for electricity without reducing plant growth, which is pretty exciting,” Michael Loik, professor of environmental studies,explainedin a release.”…If greenhouses generate electricity on site, that reduces the need for an outside source, which helps lower greenhouse gas emissions even more. We’re moving toward self-sustaining greenhouses.”

This isn’t actually a new idea, butit is a new approach that comes with some interesting scientific ideas.

In this study, the glass houses were fitted with transparent roof panels that housed a magenta luminescent dye. The dye absorbs light and can transfer energy to narrow photovoltaic stripsalso embedded in the greenhouse’s structure. Because these panels only absorb certain wavelengths of light, some of the light spectrum still reaches the plants in the greenhouse — thereby enabling them to grow even as energy is generated by the panels.

To test the effectiveness of this system, the researchers attempted to grow 20 different varieties of produce including tomatoes, cucumbers, lemons, limes, peppers, strawberries and basil plants. Concerns that the slightly darker growing conditions under the magenta panels might hinder growth proved unfounded, as 80 percent of the plants grew totally within normal expectations.

Meanwhile, 20 percent of the crops actually performed better. For example the tomato plants appeared to require less water in this system.

As tomatoes and cucumbers are among the most frequently reared plants in greenhouse conditions, this researchshould be of interest to the wider farming industry.And the findings are especiallyimportant, given that greenhouses are increasingly being used in places like Canada and China in order to rear crops.This uptick in greenhouse use is likely to continue as climate change takes hold andproducers seek ways to controlgrowing environments and make them as efficient and hospitable as possible.

Catching up to this upsurge in greenhouse use and getting greenhouses off the electric grid, therefore, offers one way toreduce both costsandenvironmental impact.

As this videofeaturing the researchers explains, this greenhouse system might also helpwithwater conservation:

Even so, this technology will not solve all the problems associated withcultivating certain crops under greenhouse conditions. For example, landmustbe cleared in order to create intensive rearing operations of any kind, and this can be highly detrimental to local biodiversity.

Thesechallenges are not insurmountable, however, and theyshouldn’t detract from this technology’s promise. Solar energy-harnessing greenhouses represent a means of providing farming capabilities to broad sectors of society — including those in poorer nationswith compromised access to electricity.

That prospect is certainly exciting, and it could potentially be amajorvictory for global development if the resultsobserved in this small trial hold up on a bigger scale.

Photo credit: Thinkstock.

67 comments

Janet B
Janet B9 hours ago

Thanks

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Greta H
Greta Hyesterday

Thanks for sharing

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Clare O
Clare O'Beara2 days ago

th

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Janet B
Janet B10 days ago

Thanks

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Louise A
Louise A11 days ago

thank you

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Ruth S
Ruth S13 days ago

Thanks.

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Janis K
Janis K14 days ago

Thanks for sharing.

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Leo C
Leo Custer14 days ago

Thank you for sharing!

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Elaine W
Elaine W15 days ago

This is good to know.

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Stephanie s
Stephanie s16 days ago

But like Joan E says many birds die because of solar power. They must be better designed.

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